sermons, songs, etceteras
This sermon was originally preached on December 19, 2021 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The live recording may be viewed here.
Scripture Texts (full texts as translated by Dr. Wilda Gafney in Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W are included at the end of the sermon):
Judges 13:2-7, Psalm 115:9-15, Luke 1:39-56
Blessed be the Lord most high who comes to us this day in spirit and fire -- not from upon a throne of glory, nor even from the mouths of righteous and practiced men, but from within the belly of a scared, unmarried teenager who’s seen some things, survived some things, and run to the cousin she knows will welcome, recognize, and celebrate the coming of God through her. Indeed, the world is about to turn on its head, just as the baby does on its way through the birth canal, to bring New Life in bloody placenta and primal pain. Oh God, Make us into ready doulas. Amen.
Today marks the fourth and final week of Advent, the last hours of the Great Waiting for God’s Arrival, when we light the fourth candle — the Candle of Peace — which is a fact I find rather funny given both our own current context of 2021 and all this time holds, as well as the scriptural and historical contexts in which Mary’s Magnificat is re-cast into the world.
I say re-cast because while it is most certainly rebellious, even dangerously so, to proclaim the toppling of empires and the humiliation of the proud, Mary’s song is not new. It is an old hymn her people have been singing for centuries, a song sung by Miriam as Israel fled the oppression of Egypt, then by Deborah and Hannah and Samson’s mother from today’s old testament reading. It is the song first sung by Abraham’s womb-slave Hagar to her God, the God who Sees, and it is the song sung again and again by Israel’s mothers to that very same God who continues to See and do justice for God’s people.(1) Indeed the gravity of Mary’s song in her particular moment in time, and ours as well, must not be missed.
But before the song, let us hear the prelude.
Luke’s gospel begins with the silencing of the priest Zechariah, a man who really should have known better than to question the Word of God. And what was the Word of God to Zechariah but that his barren wife Elizabeth would bear a child, just like so many other barren women throughout Scripture: Women who were assumed to have had broken reproductive systems and therefore no value in their cultures, but who nevertheless gave birth to God’s good news in their time. God tells the priest that his and his wife’s son would be filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb where he was still breathing amniotic fluid, and would, in life, bring the House of Israel back to its God, back to its Self.
“Shhhh,” the Angel says to the man who’s always spoken God’s word to God’s people. “In silence, watch what God will do.”
Luke then tells of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, an unwed teenager, a virgin whom surely no one would believe to be a virgin once all was told; A girl who is “troubled” by the Angel’s greeting declaring her to be highly favored. It would seem she knows the Scriptures well enough to know that the people God favors rarely make it through unscathed. And yet, when she’s told she’s been chosen to bear God into the world according to the same unfailing Word that promised a child to her barren cousin Elizabeth, now six months along, Mary says, “I am God’s. Make it happen.” And then she hurries to her cousin’s home, trusting that if anyone could help her now it will be Elizabeth.
But hold on, we’re still in the prelude. Zoom out a bit further to the socio-political context of Mary’s God-bearing youth, and what comes out of her and Elizabeth’s mouths becomes even more remarkable and riotous. As historian John Dominic Crossan tells us, Jesus was most likely born around 4 BCE, the same year Herod the Great died and Jews across the region rose up in resistance to the oppressive Roman empire. But their uprising was crushed, and Sepphoris, a city in Galilee which was about 4 miles from where Jesus grew up in Nazareth, “was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants killed, raped, and enslaved.”(2)
Friends, for Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, this would have been the reality into which Elizabeth and Mary are bravely bearing God’s truth bringers. It is in this neighborhood that Elizabeth declares Mary blessed for believing God’s promise to her would be fulfilled, and it is in this oppressed homeland that Mary raises her voice in rebellion to all earthly powers and magnifies -- enlarges -- a Name greater than Herod’s: The Lord God her Savior, who raises up the low-born and now stations her among the great mothers of the Faith who’ve been singing the song of God’s completed liberation since the very beginning.
“Completed,” you ask? Well I’m glad you noticed that bit! Indeed, Luke’s text records Mary’s Magnification of God in the Greek aorist tense which, in English, means “completed past tense.” The things for which she sings God’s praises are already done. God has already and completely scattered the proud in their thoughts. God has already and completely brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowborn. God has already and completely filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty, growling guts.
Mary’s words here are meant to be felt viscerally, in the thumping of our hearts and the hard ground beneath our butts and the emptiness of our stomachs, because for Elizabeth and Mary, the promise of the Messenger and the Message is visceral: Hope — not just for their personal spiritual salvation but for the rescue of their people — is literally growing in each of their wombs and jumping in Elizabeth’s. Their hope is alive! Inside their bodies.
I don’t know about you all, but I suspect that many of us are feeling the weight of our own world’s upheaval in our bodies, backs, bellies and bones. I sure am.
How long can this pandemic continue?
How long will the homeless freeze on our streets while the rich flaunt their excess with multiple homes?
How long will the hungry starve while grocery store dumpsters are filled with past-date but entirely edible foods?
How long will the homebound, aged, and infirm be confined to their own quarters while neighbors forego masks and vaccines that may save them not just from death, but from the crushing weight of loneliness?
How long will Black bodies be left dead in the street for as long as Jesus hung on the cross, while the state crushes those who protest?
How long will women be denied the right to decide what happens to and in our own bodies when even the Holy Spirit did not overcome God’s mother without first gaining her consent?
How long will our children be forced to practice the terror of silently surviving a school shooting, and we, their parents, forced to practice surviving their loss?
How long, How long, How long, oh Lord, how long!
There is so much anger and grief and pain and fear that we carry, Beloveds. And we, all of us, bear it in our bodies, not like a cross but like concrete in our veins.
But what would it be like to bear hope, too?
Not instead of, but also?
Mary and Elizabeth didn’t rejoice in the God of kept promises because all was well in the world, but because it wasn’t, and their salvation has come.
There can be no doubt that both these women had deep, embodied spiritual practices. That they were each attuned to what author Glennon Doyle calls their Deep Knowing, which is the truest self that resides in the deepest part of the soul.(3)
They nurtured connection to Holy Mystery and spent _t i m e_ in what the prophet Isaiah called the holy, treasured darkness, where God alone can reach and speak to us, and from where we can be sure that if anyone is speaking it is indeed God (Isa. 45:3). They knew themselves and God well enough that when God spoke from within, their Deep Knowing recognized God’s voice.
Are you, Beloveds, attuned to your Deep Knowing?
There can also be no doubt that Mary’s rejoicing was a response to Elizabeth’s celebration. The call-and-response of God’s promised liberation from oppression always and only happens in community. God is never just born to you or to me but always to us. For sure, it was from her Deep Knowing that Mary said yes to God and chose to bear God into this world through the tearing and breaking of her own body. But her Deep Knowing also told her that she could not and wasn’t meant to do it alone.
So when she said yes to God, she went directly to Elizabeth who also said Yes to God. And it is because Elizabeth recognized and celebrated God being born in Mary that Mary was able to fully rejoice in a pregnancy that might have buried her in shame, but could now be proclaimed as God’s salvation to all.
Are you, Beloveds, connected with others who can recognize and say Yes to God within you, and call forth your Magnificat?
There is so much in Mary’s song, friends, so very much for us to swim in and float in and leap in and breathe in, as Jesus and John did in their mama’s bellies. Infinitely more than I have time to explore today, which is probably best for all of us right?
So for now, as we wait, let us wonder:
Who are the Marys among us, singing the old songs of God’s salvation in such a new way that it sounds like something we’ve never heard, even while harmonizing with and awakening our own Deep Knowing? Is it you?
Who are the Elizabeths among us, so full of God’s Spirit that they recognize it in and rejoice with those who are bearing God to us now, in their own culturally, politically, or religiously rejected bodies? Is it you?
Who are the Zechariahs who are so used to the authority of their own voices that they doubt the authority of God’s, and need to be silent for a time in order for God to be born among us? Is it you?
And yes, who are the Josephs, who are terrified and confused, but still say yes to the ones who say yes, and carry the bearers through labor and delivery, even pulling God from the womb when the time comes? Is it you?
Let us close with a prayer offered by Black Liturgies author Cole Arthur Riley.
“God of Mary and Elizabeth, we thank you for holding space for the words and emotions of these women in the story of Your coming. To experience waiting through their eyes is a gift to all of those who have waited for peace and goodness in the shadows of those whom society most often centers. As you guide us into experiencing holy silence this Advent, help us to distinguish what kind of silence and for whom.? Help those whose social positions make it so that they speak quickly and are heard quickly, learn a silence in this season that considers the quiet and suppressed stories in their midst. And like Joseph and Zechariah, keep the powerful from becoming defensive and insecure when they feel their role being transformed in your wake. Let us use this season to hold space for the unseen and the unheard. And when they speak, Lord, let us believe them. Let us hold their words as sacred, knowing our faith is diluted without the sounds that they carry. Amen.”(4)
FULL LECTIONARY TEXTS (Translations by Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney, 5)
2 Now there was a certain man from Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, and his name was Manoah. His wife was barren; she had never given birth. 3 And the messenger of the Holy One appeared to the woman and said to her, “Look now, you are barren, having never given birth, you shall conceive and give birth to a son. 4 Now please be on guard not to drink wine or strong drink, and you shall not eat anything unclean. 5 For look! You shall yet conceive and give birth to a son. No razor shall be upon his head, for a nazirite to God shall the boy be from the womb. And he shall deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6 Then the woman came and spoke to her husband saying, “Someone from God came to me, and their appearance was like that of a messenger of God, incredibly awesome. I did not ask the messenger from where they came, and their name they did not tell me. 7 Yet they said to me, ‘You shall conceive and give birth to a son; do not drink wine or strong drink, and do not eat anything taboo, for a nazirite to God shall the boy be from the womb unto the day of his death.’”
9 Israel, trust in the Holy One of Old!
Their help and their shield is She.
10 House of Aaron, trust in the Holy One of Sinai!
Their help and their shield is She.
11 You who revere the Holy One, trust in the Holy One!
Their help and their shield is She.
12 The Faithful One remembers us; She will bless;
She will bless the house of Israel; She will bless the house of Aaron.
13 She will bless those who revere God Who Is Holy,
Both small and great.
14 May the Generous One add to, increase, you all, both you and your children.
15 May you all be blessed by the Ageless One, Maker of the heavens and earth.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill Their promises to her!”
46 And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Holy One;
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own womb-slave.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is God’s name.
50 God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
From generation to generation.
51 God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts,
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped God’s own child, Israel,
A memorial to God’s mercy,
55 just as God said to our mothers and fathers,
To [Hagar and] Sarah and Abraham, to their descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
(1) Based on Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World: A Beginners guide to Advent (Abingdon Press, 2019)
(2) John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (HarperOne, 2009), p. 109. -- Discovered through Pastor Niveen Sarras on Working Preacher.
(3) Glennon Doyle, Untamed (The Dial Press, 2020)
(4) Cole Arthur Riley (@BlackLiturgies on Instagram) via Period Pastor.
(5) Dr. Wilda C. Gafney, Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W (Church Publishing, 2021), Advent III